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Sam Duarte’s science fair project draws attention of university, Colorado Rapids
FORT COLLINS — The dollar amount of the legal settlement grabbed the headlines, but there was more in the agreement between the National Football League and former players who alleged the league didn’t properly warn them about the dangers of concussions.
One of the terms of the August settlement requires the NFL to allocate $10 million a year for a research and education fund.
Fort Lupton might just have a good 11-year-old to recommend for the job.
Sam Duarte is a sixth-grader at Quest Academy, and his science fair project, which studied ways to prevent concussions for soccer players, earned him the attention of Colorado State University.
Standing on a milk crate behind a podium, Duarte was the guest speaker Sept. 12 at the grand opening of the Suzanne and Walter Scott, Jr. Bioengineering Building on CSU’s Fort Collins campus.
“This past year, I did an experiment on potentially reducing concussions and brain trauma in soccer by testing the impact forces on an artificial head with and without protective headgear,” Duarte said to the crowd gathered at the $75-million, 122,000-square-foot building. “I learned about different types of concussions and the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by cumulative brain trauma from even mild impacts.”
Not surprisingly, Duarte’s research found that the use of headgear does reduce impact forces. But then he took the next step.
“I really wanted my project to make a difference,” Duarte said. “I shared my results with Colorado Youth Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, and former Rapids captain Pablo Mastroeni, who was out for a year with concussion symptoms.”
Colorado Youth Soccer is the State governing body of club soccer under U.S. Soccer, USASA and U.S. Youth Soccer.
Mastroeni became interested in Duarte’s research and the two met to discuss ways to make the game safer. Mastroeni shared Duarte’s data with athletic trainers for the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids then posted Duarte’s information on the team’s website.
When Mastroeni returned to play, he was wearing protective headgear.
“I was flabbergasted that my project did make a difference,” Duarte said.
Duarte used PVC piping to construct a swinging arm with enough force to test the protective headgear. “One of the best parts of the project was using a swinging noise to smack the artificial head into the cinderblocks,” Duarte said with a grin. “That was fun. The other best part was winning an award from CSU’s biomedical engineering and being invited to visit the campus. Wow!”
Duarte was particularly intrigued during the tour of current research projects at the university. He stopped in to watch treadmill experiments studying the nuances of human walking. The lead research chatted with Duarte and gave him encouragement for future studies.
“He gave me tons of ideas and food for thought related to my project,” Duarte said. “I’m building on some of his ideas for my project this year.”
He pauses before adding, “Although I still don’t get to experiment on real people.”
Duarte has many subjects that he would like to research, but everything has a common theme centered around the intersection of science and athletics.
“I really want to be a professional soccer player when I grow up,” Duarte said. “But as a backup, or when I retire from soccer, I’d love to be a biomedical engineer. Studying the way the human body works would be fascinating.”
But above his personal interests, Duarte wants his research to make the world a better place.
His mother, Carol Duarte, a teacher at Fort Lupton Middle School, said Sam is self-motivated.
“Because he’s a teacher’s kid, it means he had to do a lot more of it on his own simply because when I help my students, I feel like I’m helping them, but when I help my own son, I feel like it’s cheating,” Duarte said. “So for example, he had another middle school teacher help him with his editing. And he had written or talked to a lot of people for help. I offered advice and asked a lot of questions, but he really had to do this work on his own.”
Carol is obviously thrilled about Sam’s future as he eyes bigger, and probably louder experiments.
“While smashing my artificial head into cinderblocks was fun, smashing lots of things in lots of different labs would be stupendous!” Duarte said. “I thought the old engineering building was wonderful. I can’t wait to see the new one.”